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Prep Your College Application For UC, CSU And More: What To Do With Essays, GPAs And That 'Optional' SAT Score

Three students look at laptops at the Downtown Magnets High School college center, in a room lined with college pennants and computer monitors. Two of the three students sit at a wooden desk, one wearing a t-shirt and one wearing a gray hoodie. The third student is standing and eating a blue sweatshirt. Counselor Lynda McGee is in the background sitting at her desk. Everyone is wearing a facemask.
Counselor Lynda McGee and peer counselors at the Downtown Magnets High School college center during the first week back at school after nearly a year and a half of distance learning, August 19, 2021.
(Jill Replogle
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High school seniors applying to four-year colleges and universities during the pandemic faced a whole new landscape — "a new planet," said Dale Leaman, University of California Irvine's executive director of undergraduate admissions.

Many schools wouldn't even look at standardized test scores (if a student could find a testing center to take them at and was willing to risk getting a deadly virus). Report cards were full of "pass" or "no pass" grades. No one was playing football or attending science club meetings to boost their chance of getting a scholarship. And a person barely entering adulthood had to make choices about perhaps the biggest investment of their young life based on virtual campus tours and questions answered by university chatbots.

These challenges were not — and still aren't — felt equally among all students. More Black and Latino students and their families have faced illness, death and financial hardship from COVID-19 than other groups. These students also were less likely to engage with distance learning when schools first shut down.

"The prolonged pandemic … has really shone a spotlight on the haves and have nots," said Marie Bigham, founder of ACCEPT, a group that advocates for greater equity in college admissions, "It wasn't just a one quarter thing." Bigham sees this spotlight as positive. "We can see that these educational disparities are truly systemic and aren't going away just because we figured out how to do online classes a little bit better."

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Undergraduate enrollment has fallen 6.5% since pre-pandemic 2019, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Enrollment at community college has plummeted 14% since the beginning of the pandemic.

If your experience was ... it sucked being on Zoom all day and [being home], I'm not sure that that's an essay that's going to set you apart.
— Arun Ponnusamy

Nevertheless, applications to, and enrollment in, some top universities rose last year, likely thanks to the suspension of standardized tests, pandemic-era changes to high school grading and, possibly, an increased number of students qualifying for waived application fees because of financial hardship.

In Fall 2020, applications to UC schools were up more than 13%, and freshman applications to UCLA rose significantly among Black, Latino, Pacific Islander and American Indian would-be freshmen — groups underrepresented in higher education.

As deadlines approach for students to apply for the 2022-2023 school year, some pandemic-era quirks of the application process are now back to (semi)normal. Others, though, have been permanently altered.

Here's what you need to know about applying to college in 2021.

GPA Counts, A Lot. 'Credit' Or 'Pass' Could Work In Your Favor

In normal times, in-state applicants to UC and CSU schools would generally have to show a C or better in the 15 college prep (A-G) courses required for admission. And in reality, most students have to do a lot better than that to get admitted to top schools, like UCLA, where middle-of-the-road acceptees had an average weighted GPA of 4.18 - 4.32.

But for classes taken during the winter 2020 semester through summer 2021, UC and CSU schools will also accept "credit" or "pass" instead of a grade, and those classes won't be factored into a student's GPA.

Elizabeth An, a counselor at Mark Keppel High School in Alhambra said that this, along with the elimination of standardized test requirements for many colleges, is likely incentivizing more students to apply to selective schools. "Some students who might have had lower GPAs now have higher GPAs, and then they will apply to kind of shoot their shot," An said.

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This year, though, grades are back and high school students will have to work to get, and keep up those grades if they want a shot at top schools.

In this image there's a bookshelf in a bookstore. The shelf is lined with SAT preparation books.
SAT test preparation books sit on a shelf at a Barnes and Noble store back in 2002 in New York City.
(Mario Tama
Getty Images)

Even More Colleges Are 'Test-Blind' Or 'Test-Optional'

More than three-quarters of all U.S. universities and colleges aren't requiring SAT or ACT scores to be considered for admission this year, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. That's a 70% increase compared to the pre-pandemic 2019 admission cycle, according to the group's data.

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing and other critics of standardized tests argue that these tests don't adequately measure deep or creative thinking, and that they unfairly reflect socioeconomic disparities between those who do and don't have easy access to testing and test prep.

Plus, during the pandemic, a lot of students flat out couldn't find a place to take a test. Hailey Molina, senior at Mark Keppel, said she signed up 20 times to take the SATs or ACTs only to have it cancelled each time.

"There was like one week where I changed seven different [testing] locations," Molina said. "I told my parents, 'OK, we're going to Warren High School. Never mind, we're going to Garfield. Never mind, I'm not taking it.'"

In the end, none of the 13 schools Molina is applying to requires standardized test scores this year. "I'm glad that part changed," she said.

Test Scores Could Still Be Useful

Some schools, including the entire University of California and California State University systems, won't look at test scores at all, known as "test-blind," when considering admission or awarding scholarships.

But if an applicant chooses to submit scores, gets accepted and then enrolls, those scores could be used to place them into an appropriate level math or English course.

Students can also submit SAT or ACT scores as an alternative way to satisfy some minimum requirements for admissions (for example, a score of 520 on the SAT Spanish exam would satisfy the UC admission requirement for two years of high school coursework in a language other than English.)

Standardized test scores may also be required for some national, local and school-specific merit scholarships, though not at UC and CSU schools.

Arun Ponnusamy, chief academic officer for the national college counseling service Collegewise, said if a student is a good test-taker and can manage to take a standardized test, it's probably not a bad idea, especially if they're looking at private or out-of-state schools. "There remain schools that are competitive enough where anything that could give you an edge, even a small one, there may be some value in adding a test score," he said.

If a student doesn't know if they're a good test-taker, they can find out, Ponnusamy said. "The beautiful thing is there are dozens, if not hundreds, of companies out there that offer you free practice tests, so you can take those tests and see how well you'll do on them."

Test Optional Means Test Optional

Admissions officers and college counselors want students to believe a school when it says it's optional to submit test scores.

"I truly believe, like firmly in my heart, that when an institution says 'we are test-optional,' I don't think that students who apply without testing are hurt," said Bigham, who advocates for a more equitable admissions process. "I haven't seen that play out. … So I think if the student is applying to a place and they say they're test-optional, believe them."

Still, she and others acknowledged that many students and parents don't believe them. Ponnusamy said: "I think there's still some cynicism. 'OK, maybe it's test-optional for those kids but not for these kids, or my kids.'"

He said the cynicism is particularly pronounced among some parents who assume they got into a UC school in the past because of great test scores and great grades.

"There's a certain vision of like, 'well, I got into Berkeley because I had great grades and great test scores and now you're saying other things count?' And, yeah, other things have always counted," he said.

Volunteers gather their trash bags after combing the sidewalks along a Central Avenue intersection on a bright day. One worker has on a white tank-top and black pants, and the other has a black shirt. Both are wearing gloves.
Volunteers gather their trash bags after combing the sidewalks along Central Avenue
(Giuliana Mayo
LAist )

More Weight On 'Other Things'

It's true that other things have always counted. UC schools use a matrix of 13 different factors to evaluate applicants, many of them academic, but also including special talents and overcoming adversity. UC Irvine's Leaman said the changes to grading, standardized tests and other pandemic disruptions forced his admissions team to put an even greater emphasis on "holistic review" of an applicant and that applicant's specific context.

"We are taking into consideration the entire student," he said. (He also said the changes had been "pretty exhausting" for admissions officers.)

Leaman noted that it will take some years to get a full picture of how the pandemic and changes to admissions during these years affects outcomes for college students who enroll. "What we need to learn now is how well students persist and how well students succeed and their graduation rates," he said.

CSU schools are also using multiple factors to determine admission for California students during the pandemic, and for campuses and majors that are "impacted," meaning there are more eligible applicants than space. These criteria vary from campus to campus, but can include local residency, work experience and community involvement.

Brandon Tuck, admissions director at Cal Poly Pomona, said his campus is trying to make the admissions process more transparent for prospective students, including by posting the minimum profile of students accepted to different majors. That can change from year to year, but "it gives you a good enough sense on what you need to do academically to be accepted to a certain major," he said.

Tuck also noted that students can appeal the university's decision not to admit them if they have extenuating circumstances.

To Write, Or Not To Write, A Pandemic Essay

Not surprisingly, a LOT of students wrote about the pandemic in their college essays last year, admissions officers and advisors said. Applicants this year can certainly do the same, they said, but should probably focus on how the pandemic changed them or how they overcame specific obstacles.

READ: UC's Application Deadline For Fall 2021 Is Looming. Here Are Some Tips For Your Essays

"Only for about 10% of students who did COVID essays (last year) did it really matter," said Phil Moreno, Dickinson College's director of west coast recruitment and former president of the Western Association for College Admission Counseling.

"Most of the time," he said, "you don't need to include that information, especially if it's in your school profile" (School profiles give summary information about a high school's student body, academic offerings and other information that helps college admissions officers understand an applicant's context.)

Collegewise's Ponnusamy said: "If you've got something where you're like this experience [of the COVID-19 pandemic] is what led me to develop a new hobby, whether it was baking or mountain biking or coding, that's great. It becomes that window to this larger sense of who you are. If your experience was ... it sucked being on Zoom all day and being within the walls of your apartment or home, I'm not sure that that's an essay that's going to set you apart from any of the other students who wrote similar essays."

Like last year, many college applications — as well as the Common App — include a section separate from the essays or personal statements where applicants can note how the pandemic impacted them and their family.

Transferring From Community College

For students whose dreams of going to a UC, CSU or other 4-year college were derailed by the pandemic, starting at community college and then transferring is a great option, said UC Irvine's Leaman.

Students should note, though, that if they take just one or two classes at a community college during a regular Fall or Spring semester and then try to apply to a CSU or UC school, they will be considered a transfer student and will have to complete the full requirements to be considered (generally, at least two years' worth of classes).

The UC and CSU systems both have guaranteed transfer pathways for California community college students who commit to that route and keep up their grades. A new state law intends to eventually make the process easier and less confusing for transfer students.

"We're big supporters of the transfer community," Leaman said. "These students come in and they are prepared, they're mature, they're dedicated" and they get the exact same diploma as a student who did all four years on the UC campus, he emphasized.

Have a question about access to higher education?
Jill Replogle covers the pathways to higher education and the obstacles students face along the way.

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